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Actor Reggie Lee: ‘Our Stories are Just as Human, Vibrant, and Worthy of Being Told’

Reggie Lee has no regrets. He was accepted at Harvard but, instead, he proceeded to Los Angeles to pursue his first love – acting.

Lee went on to star in TV series and films, including the new series All Rise (as head DDA Thomas Choi), and Grimm (as Sgt. Wu), which ran from 2011 to 2017. They earned him a rabid fan base.

In our e-mail interview the Asian-American actor, who was born in Quezon City, Philippines, recounted, “I was planning to major in biology and also take up a second major in the Arts. Most of that was geared towards what I thought I ‘should’ be doing rather than what I actually ‘wanted’ to do.

“But I was driven and incredibly focused on being an actor. So, following my heart instead of my head eventually won out. Thank God. It was almost unbearable to ‘not’ listen to my gut and my instincts. I have absolutely no regrets! I’m incredibly grateful for every part of this journey!”

Below are excerpts of our conversation with the pioneering actor who has several new, interesting projects up his sleeve.

You are one of the pioneering Asian American and Pacific Islander actors who made it in Hollywood. What were the challenges you encountered when you were trying to break into the mainstream?

The biggest challenge was two-fold. First, there was the issue of not many roles available for AAPI talent. Secondly, the roles that we were cast in were, more often than not, one-dimensional. It never prevented me from fleshing out a character completely, bringing dimension and humanity to the role. But then, the characters’ storylines were never expanded and were almost always stereotypical.

I can’t tell you how many gang leaders I’ve played. I felt like we became more of a token for diversity rather than a necessary, fleshed-out, three-dimensional part of the story. It’s getting better but we need to keep working to tell our stories as human beings who are a part of the fabric of this nation.

You were only 17 when you joined Miss Saigon. How was that experience?

It was eye-opening. It was a dream come true. To do what I love to do on that scale and level with a cast of other AAPI talents was like “coming home.” For the longest time, especially growing up in Ohio, I would usually be the only AAPI in the cast.

So, to see other people who “looked like me” was heartwarming and refreshing. And Filipinos! So many Filipinos in the cast! We bonded over shared family stories and experiences and food! It gave me a sense of community in the arts like I never had before. We continue to support each other and grow as artists and in life.

You also worked as a dancer for Prince on the MTV Music Awards. How was that, working for Prince?

It is even more surreal now than it was then. Prince was already a legend then but now his spirit is larger than life. He is iconic. So, looking back on it, I am floored that I was in the same room and working with this genius.

Prince was incredibly giving. He always pulled for the dancers. Not to mention he was, of course, impeccably dressed. Even for rehearsals.

I will mention some of your shows or movies. Share some of the highlights for you in each show or film:

Pirates of the Caribbean

I remember flying into St. Vincent in the Caribbean and then being taken on a speedboat to get to set. As we rounded the bend, I saw the gigantic pirate ship that was The Black Pearl and I remember just being overwhelmed by the magnitude and the grandeur of the set. Then, of course, the first scene I filmed was with Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush.

The Dark Knight Rises

For the first part of this shoot, I was put up in a bed and breakfast in the British countryside. It felt like I was in a British period film. I loved it! The script was so secretive that I could read it only in a specific trailer. My scenes were given to me with everything blacked out except for my specific lines and action.

But Christopher Nolan is a genius. He was quick and knew exactly what he wanted. It was fascinating to experience his process.

The Fast and the Furious

My first big film. So many memories, mostly tied to it being my first big studio film. I remember going to Catalina Island for a weekend with a friend of mine and getting a call from my agent as soon as we got there.

I immediately had to take the boat back to get a helmet fitting the next day. I learned how to ride a motorcycle for that role.

Then, I get there to shoot my first scene with Rick Yune, where we ride our motorbikes and shoot at Vin Diesel and Paul Walker’s characters. What’s funny is that my stunt double (Sam Valdivia) did all the amazing riding. They simply put a seat and handlebars on a truck bed with the camera in front of me for my closeups. I really wanted to ride that bike!


Prison Break

I loved doing this show. You will not find nicer showrunners and producers than Paul Scheuring and Matt Olmstead. What was supposed to be a five-episode arc turned into a whole season.

I just remember my schedule got crazy because I was doing Pirates of the Caribbean at the same time. So, when it extended from five episodes to 16 episodes, there was a lot of flying and a lot of clearing of schedules. But, boy, was it fun!

NCIS: New Orleans

I loved working with Scott Bakula! Such a nice guy and a wonderful scene partner.

All Rise

I had never worked with a cast as diverse as this one that also addressed issues of race in society. Aside from having such a wonderful group of people from top to bottom, the show was a breath of fresh air to dig deep into issues with other persons of color. I found it quite groundbreaking for network television.


It is the dream show to work on. My first series regular role that was picked up from pilot to series. We were incredibly fortunate to run six seasons. Not only did we get to experience fully fleshing out our characters’ lives, but we did it in the supernatural world – which lets you play outside the box of humanity as we know it.

But the biggest and best memory of this entire experience is the family we formed from cast to crew, creators, and producers. We are all bonded by a deep respect and love for each other. Lifelong friends and family!


In Grimm, you were the one who pitched the idea of the aswang (Tagalog for vampires or shapeshifting monsters) to the writers and creators of the “Mommy Dearest” episode. Can you elaborate on that?

They wanted to do an episode that addressed the mythological world of my culture. Since I’m Filipino-Chinese (but definitely more Filipino, not to mention I was born and also spent my early childhood there), they asked me if there was any mythology related to the Philippines.

I said, “Oh boy! Mythological creatures are huge in the Philippines!” I remember growing up with tales that were told to me by both my mom and my grandparents. So, I gave them three different creatures: the duwende (dwarves), the manananggal (bloodsucking monsters), and the aswang.

We ended up telling my story with the tale of the aswang. It was the first major Filipino storyline on network television. One of the highest-rated episodes of the entire series!

A doughnut was also named after you and was inspired by your Grimm character, Sgt. Drew Wu. Can you talk some more about this donut, The Dirty Wu, now a Reggie Lee doughnut? How did this come about?


The owner of Pip’s Original Doughnuts, in Portland, Oregon, tweeted me and asked me if it was okay to name a doughnut after my character. I said, “Are you kidding?! What an honor! Yes!”

Nate Snell, the owner and now a good friend, who has a motto of “community not competition”, which I love, said that it would be a doughnut that had everything on it, based on the episode when my character had an eating disorder called pica, where I ate everything and anything. It would be called a Dirty Wu.

After Grimm ended, he said he didn’t feel right calling it a Dirty Wu anymore, so they changed the name of the doughnut to a Reggie Lee. My friends who visit Portland all go in there and try the doughnut and take a pic of my name on the menu. What a hoot! And an honor! It’s a hot cinnamon sugar doughnut drizzled with Nutella, sea salt, and honey.

You will be in an upcoming TV series The Lincoln Lawyer, as Angelo Soto. Talk about that character.

What I can say is that it is one of the few times that I have been cast in a part that was written for a Filipino. Usually, I get cast in a role and they make it Filipino because I’m Filipino. But, this time, it was written as Filipino. I get to speak Tagalog!

I remember talking to the showrunner, Ted Humphrey, and I wanted to speak Tagalog but also be able to speak completely unaccented English. He completely was on board with that, which I really appreciated. Plus, I loved working with Neve Campbell and Jamie McShane.

You are one of the producers of the upcoming Filipino American TV series Concepcion. What’s special about this project?

I remember being approached. The writer said it was a “Narcos meets The Godfather II – Filipino style.” So, I was intrigued. I have never read a script before and felt so “seen.” The story revolves around a Filipino family, their empire, and their road to that empire and beyond.

I was so moved by how much this Filipino family made me feel like I was “home.” The storyline was full of suspense and intrigue that I was just floored by the script. I said to the writers, Lynn Harrod and Craig Obligacion Wilson (who are both half Filipinos), that I would attach myself if I could help them produce it. I took it to the team behind Grimm, and we are off and running!

You were also the recipient of the highest award from EWP (East West Players – the oldest and most prominent Asian American Theatre in the country), the Visionary Award. What is the significance of this award for you?

This year the same award was given to Michelle Yeoh. I feel humbled being one of the recipients. You go through life doing the best you can, working hard, having low and high career moments, and working through it all.

Before you know it, someone has deemed you a visionary and a trailblazer, and it feels like it’s the most amazing honor.

Having been born in the Philippines, then growing up in Ohio and not seeing people who looked like me, much less who were trying to be actors, made me dig really deep to get here. All of the Black, Indigenous and People of Color community of my generation has fought to be seen, be heard, and be celebrated for who they are. So, to receive this award from EWP was and continues to be very inspiring for me and such an honor.

Do you think Hollywood is opening more doors now to Asian-American talents? What else needs to be done?

I do think so. No, I know so. People cannot ignore us anymore. We are here. We are part of the fabric of this nation. Our stories are just as human, just as vibrant, and just as worthy of being told as anyone else’s in this country, in this world. But it takes us to write our own stories, tell our own stories, and believe that we can get them out there.

It is a crucial time to keep our foot on the gas pedal. I’ve seen waves of stories told involving the BIPOC community, but they are just that – waves. It’s time to stay here for good and keep telling our stories. Keep our stories visible by celebrating and promoting the work of other AAPI artists.

It is people like you, who celebrate the works of AAPI artists and specifically Filipino Americans, who form the building blocks to our staying power in this industry, to our stories always being told, to our inclusion not only in the artistic community of this nation but in the fabric of the humanity of this nation. Tell your stories. Tell our stories!